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Just Like Buses

Today is another anniversary. Again just about inescapable if you’ve been near any BBC outlet the past week or so.

You wait 50 years for an anniversary and then two come along at once….

On 23rd November 1963 a strange, spooky TV programme with a first episode entitled An Unearthly Child appeared on BBC 1.

The programme was of course Doctor Who.

On Thu, 21/11/13, BBC 2 showed a good drama about its genesis, An Adventure in Space and Time. It’s on the iPlayer here.

The BBC has got a bit of a cheek calling it the longest running TV programme, though, considering they axed it for years after Sylvester McCoy’s run finished – apart from the Paul McGann one-off.

For any nostalgia freaks here are all the different title sequences.

Thunderbirds Are Gone

So today it is Gerry Anderson who has died.

Though he had produced television programmes earlier I was first aware of his work with Fireball XL5 – mainly due to the theme tune (which one of my mates had running through his head during a University term exam years later.) Then came Stingray and the iconic Thunderbirds.

After that, through Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90 I was perhaps a bit too old.

However, when these series were repeated in the 1990s my own sons were the perfect age to enjoy them – and the toys! (We still have those toys somewhere.)

Anderson moved on from the puppetry and “Supermarionation” of these fondly loved shows with the live action UFO and Space 1999. Those of a cruel disposition jested that the actors here were more wooden than the puppets had been.

All have dated perhaps badly (but nothing dates as quickly as the future.)

I was watching the BBC news channel when I heard the news. Emily Maitlis tried to interview Brian Blessed (who’d worked with Gerry a few times) over the phone. That was a mistake. Despite trying, she couldn’t get a word in edgeways.

Many will remember Gerry and his creations with a great deal of fondness.

Gerry Anderson, 14/04/1929-26/12/2012. So it goes.

Geography Awry

In the last episode of Waldemar Januszcak‘s excellent television series on the mostly unheralded art of the Dark Ages, where he covered the Vikings, the Carolingians and The Anglo-Saxons, he referred to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) as being off the North coast of Britain.

Tut-tut, Waldemar. That would make it in the Pentland Firth/Atlantic!

Lindisfarne is actually barely two-thirds of the way up Britain.

It is, however, off the North-East coast of England.

Long Ago and Far Away

Two 60s memories are now no more.

Scott McKenzie – a one hit wonder with San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)has died.

So too has the actor William Windom whom I remember very fondly as the star of the US TV series My World and Welcome To It, inspired by the works of cartoonist James Thurber, a role for which Windom won an Emmy Award. Though I hadn’t quite remembered it he also played Commodore Decker in Star Trek – for evidence of which see this:-

Commodore Decker

More latterly Windom has appeared in Murder She Wrote.

Here is a You Tube clip of a part of a My World and Welcome To It episode. It follows the usual pattern of Windom giving a spiel outside his (cartoon) house before the opening credits – which appear at about 1:30 and are a joy in themselves. The clip retains the original US adverts. (I must say they would drive me crazy coming in so early in a programme.)

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Scott McKenzie (Philip Wallach Blondheim): 10/1/1939-18/8/2012
William Windom: 28/9/1923-16/8/2012

So it goes.

Elisabeth Sladen

I was saddened to read today of the death of Elizabeth Sladen who played Sarah Jane, one of the Doctor’s many companions in Doctor Who.

Sad too, that Elisabeth was only 63. It’s no age at all for these days.

I am by no means an inveterate Doctor Who fanboy but have watched the series from its inception up to the present day. Sarah-Jane was the first female companion to be more than just an adjunct to the Doctor. It was a pleasure to see her return to the updated show during David Tenant’s time as the incumbent. I must admit, though, that I didn’t bother with the spin-off Sarah-Jane Adventures; I don’t think they were meant for me anyway.

With the demise of Nicholas Courtney that means two fondly remembered Doctor Who characters’ actors have now gone in less than two months.

Elisabeth Claira Heath Sladen: 1/2/1946-19/4/2011. So it goes.

The West Wing, Series 7. (Or: The Campaign Trail, Series 2.)

2008

While the series is dramatic and at times makes very good TV the producers could probably be sued under the Trades Descriptions Act. In large part, the West Wing this is not, as it deals mostly with the campaign to elect Bartlet’s successor as President and the transition period which follows the election. However, what this strategy does do is avoid staleness. Any hint of claustrophobia, that we are too restricted to the White House, is thereby nullified.

While the programme is as always an ensemble piece there are two wonderful performances from Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as the Presidential candidates in the episode featuring the television debate. On a sadder note the death of perennial cast member John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, casts a long shadow over this final series.

The writers undoubtedly nail that self-righteousness that a lot of Republicans seem to ooze, an inner certainty that cannot be brooked. In this regard their making the Republican candidate not a God-botherer and a more or less freedom of conscience man is strange. It’s not so much USians puffing themselves up as showing how they might be if they could only access the better angels of their nature.

Looking at the run of the West Wing as a whole, characters appear, disappear and reappear seemingly without logic but probably in a reflection of the availability of the actors concerned.

But it is of course first and foremost entertainment – albeit tinged with the US penchant for sentimentality. And it illustrates the old adage that all political careers end in failure.

The West Wing, Series 6

2007

As the seasons roll by The West Wing becomes all too obviously a fiction with not much regard for verisimilitude. The scriptwriters appear to be ticking all the boxes one by one. Even attempts at a rapprochement with Cuba!

The Gaza cliffhanger thing from season 5 is resolved quickly with Pres Bartlet solving the Israel/Palestine problem (if only) and Donna, of course, being OK. At one point we hear Josh Lyman saying, “wanker.” Do they know what it means? C J replacing Leo McGarry as Chief of Staff after his heart attack seemed unlikely. We also get an episode where magicians Penn and Teller “burn” a US flag in the White House and all hell breaks loose. [What is with this lot and their flag? They treat it like a sacred relic. It’s a symbol, nothing more. Certainly not an object worthy of veneration. It’s as if we were to reverence Buckingham Palace or something.]

On a trip to a summit in China the President’s multiple sclerosis rears its head as, for dramatic necessity, it had to at some time. He, of course, overcomes it all but the gradual degradation of his abilities is played on for the rest of the series.

The setting begins to shift to who is going to succeed him. Each second episode breaks off from the West Wing to focus on the election Primaries, both Democrat and Republican.

There was one episode where that irritating, and totally unconvincing, British ambassador appeared again in which the dynamic of US-UK relations was completely misrepresented. The rather touching idea was expressed that Britain would actually take military action somewhere (the RAF might bomb Iran no less!!!) without the say-so (or even acquiescence) of the US. It was as if they believed a UK government’s response to a “provocation” would go beyond words; that its resort of choice would be (as is theirs apparently) to force. In reality we wouldn’t let a soldier blow his nose without their approval. [And for the record, we didn’t send tanks on to the streets of Dublin after the IRA (by the way mostly US funded – where was the war on terror then?) carried out bombings in mainland Britain.]

As the seasons roll on The West Wing becomes more and more a case of USians reassuring themselves that, for all their problems, they are good and true. Even the Republican nominee for President (excellently played by Alan Alda) is a reasonable man and not an extreme right wing lunatic, though his “shines-his-own shoes” down-homeness was a bit overdone.

No cliffhanger as such this time except for some lingering stuff about a secret military space shuttle.

Nicholas Courtney

So farewell, then, Brigadier (lately Colonel) Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart.

This iconic character first appeared in Doctor Who in the Patrick Troughton era but became an integral part of the show during John Pertwee’s incarnation.

The actor who played him, Nicholas Courtney, had appeared in the programme in another role as early as 1965 opposite William Hartnell and – as Lethbridge-Stewart, in charge of the British arm of UNIT – with all the later TV versions of the Doctor up to Sylvester McCoy excepting that of Colin Baker.

As Colonel and Brigadier he was playing an essentially decent man who was (to my mind rather unfortunately) too prone to resort to his area of expertise, military means. The phrase most associated with the character was, “Five rounds rapid!” So much so that Courtney used that as the title of his autobiography.

While Courtney appeared in many other roles it is probably as Lethbridge-Stewart that he will be best remembered – certainly by fans of Doctor Who.

William Nicholas Stone Courtney: 16/12/1929-22/02/2011. So it goes.

Where Were The Acid Rain Deniers?

I came across a television programme about climate change sceptics the other night and started watching it. The man-made-climate-change denier they followed the most seemed, at the least, peculiarly fixated (and was later shown up to be somewhat economical with the truth – not to say downright mendacious in his quotations.)

Where he began to annoy me was when he marched off to a geological site in Australia with some acid in a bottle in order to “prove” that there were high levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere when the whole planet was iced over. He proceeded to say, “Here’s a piece of Dolomite, let’s pour acid on it and see if it gives off CO2,” and I thought, “Wait a minute. Dolomite’s a carbonate, of course it’ll give off CO2 when you put acid on it!”

Any carbonate rock will do. Try the White Cliffs of Dover, you’ll get the same result. Or a piece of marble.

So this “proof” consisted of nothing other than an unremarkable bit of chemistry. Quite how it was supposed to relate to the atmospheric conditions which pertained millions of years ago was never quite made clear.

The same guy then went on to speak to an audience of Aussie sceptics some of whom the programme interviewed afterward and they spoke of him as if he were a prophet and climate change scepticism as if it were a religion.

He took the biscuit at a Tea Party rally in the US where he buttered the crowd up with the “great land of freedom” rhetoric, spoke to their prejudices and apparently almost omitted to mention any scientific evidence at all. Another of the speakers raised great cheers when he said, “Americans won’t be bullied.”

Speaking to the camera one more attender at the rally said they were standing up against tyranny. (Though what they have yet actually been forced to do that they didn’t want to I have no idea.)

A day or so later I was showing a class a (twenty year old) video about the acid rain problem and the use of catalytic converters in cars and a thought occurred to me.

Wasn’t the removal of leaded petrol equally “tyrannical” as any putative legislation to alleviate climate change? Or the introduction of catalytic converters? This was in effect a tax on people (and cars) exactly of the sort the Tea Partiers at the rally were apparently complaining about. Yet I don’t remember large protests about them. Nor hearing of Acid Rain sceptics – still less Acid Rain deniers.

Why was this? What made/makes the difference?

Where were the Acid Rain deniers?

The answer may lie in the fact that having catalytic converters in your car doesn’t imply a change in lifestyle, merely a slightly higher cost of living – sweetened, of course, in the UK when unleaded petrol was phased in, by the lower tax levied on it in comparison with leaded.

The programme also spoke to several US petrol heads who were not sceptical of anthropogenic climate change but still liked their cars and motor-bikes. One referred to oil as the US’s crack cocaine, that it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to wean them off it.

But it was this standing against tyranny thing that struck me.

How far do these people go in their individualism and disrespect for rules/instruction/coercion?

When they get in their SUVs or 4x4s and drive off to their rifle and pistol shootathons do they wear seat belts, I wonder? Do they drive on whatever-side-of-the-road-they-damn-well-please? Or do they accept there are some limits on their freedom?

Where, exactly, do they draw the line in standing up against tyranny?

Do they accept there are any limits on their freedom? And if they do, why are they so against what, if they are right, would be only a relatively minor inconvenience in the larger scheme of things but if they are wrong means they – and all the rest of us – may be totally stuffed?

Or do they think they are somehow inviolable and just don’t care about anyone else?

The West Wing, Series 5

2006

The cliffhanger of President Bartlet’s daughter’s kidnapping which ended series 4 is swiftly resolved (in a highly unlikely fashion it has to be said, though it did conform to the conventions of narrative.) Then it’s back to business as usual with more unveiling of the intricacies of the US political system.

In an episode called Shutdown failure to agree a budget “on the hill” leads to governmental operations ceasing. (Why can’t they just carry on using a repeat of last year’s budget? Very odd.) There was a blatant filler episode called Access, a supposed fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in the West Wing under the Bartlet administration. We didn’t need this: we are/were flies on the wall already.

Notable by her absence in this series was Josh’s girlfriend, she of the undiscernible dialogue (who had been working for the First Lady in series 4.) This unexplained disappearance was peculiar. She was only the most egregious example of one of the irritants with The West Wing; either the sound is appalling or the actors too often are mumbling.

We have another cliffhanger series ending – this time to do with events in Gaza and Donna Moss facing a life threatening operation.

It’s still superior entertainment, though, and helps to pass the time on those nights when the fare on offer on British television is unappealing. (Which is to say, nearly every night.)

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